Man walking his tortoise draws a crowd in Little River

According to an old fable, the tortoise won his race with the hare by going slow but steady.

In the tale of the tortoise's walk with Randy Gallagher, it doesn't really matter who wins. Gallagher just wants to make sure the tortoise isn't hit by a car.

On any given afternoon, Gallagher, who lives in Calabash, NC, can be seen walking his African land tortoises, also known as sulcata or spurred tortoises, on an empty lot next to Highway 17 in Little River.

The walk is healthy for the animals, Gallagher said, and they seem to like munching on the rag weed that grows there.

When Hammer, a 30-year-old male, wanders a bit too close to the roadway, Gallagher bends over the wayward animal and gives him a gentle heave to point him in a safer direction. But it's not an easy task for Gallagher, who's 62 years old. Hammer weighs 100 lbs.

Gallagher has been interested in animals all his life and has had other pets before, but can't fully explain his current obsession with the African tortoises.

He owns 8 of them.

"These just come up and they were really interesting to me at the time and you buy one and you keep adding to the collection," he said.

It doesn't take long for Gallagher and his tortoises to draw a crowd whenever they go for a walk. Neal Bowers of Myrtle Beach was one of many drivers on Highway 17 who pulled off the road on a recent afternoon to satisfy their curiosity.

"Literally, you don't see a man walking his turtle every day," Bowers said. "And so we were heading back to the beach and we saw it and we just said we were going to stop and see what was going on."

Gallagher welcomes the attention and is happy to share his affection for the animals. "I do churches, try to do educational things as much as possible, try to have them out here on the side of the road so people can enjoy them on a daily basis."

With its khaki coloring and heavily-scaled claws that are perfect for burrowing deep in the sand, the spurred tortoise is made for the Saharan desert. But Gallagher said his animals seem to thrive in South Carolina.

"Atmosphere's real good, climate, food's good," he said. "They're very hardy, they're not susceptive to changes in climate quite like some of the other animals."

Gallagher said his tortoises eat mostly grass, though he supplements their diet with bits of pumpkin, kale or turnip greens. They like fruit, he said, though it's bad for them.

Gallagher said his animals are gentle and like being petted. "People just fall in love with them, they make an excellent pet. And you only have to buy one, they're gonna outlive you."

Amelia Hayden, who lives in Martha's Vineyard, MA, was among those who couldn't resist stopping by to take a picture of the man and his turtles. She will tell her friends that it's one more thing she would never see back home.

"I was surprised. Never seen anything like it."